Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2002 / 14 Tishrei, 5763

Drs. Michael A. Glueck & Robert J. Cihak

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Consumer Reports

A Ray A Day" to replace the daily apple? | So the sky isn't falling, after all. Actually, it's back up to where it was all along.

Maybe even a little bit higher.

The non-catastrophe under consideration is low doses of ionizing radiation, such as from x-rays, gamma rays and other similar rays. Turns out that such radiation is harmless. No, better than harmless, it's helpful.

And we are apparently the first to break the news nationally about some new evidence published in the July issue of the British Journal of Radiology (BJR).

Last year, in a BJR article titled "100 years of observation on British radiologists: mortality from cancer and other causes 1897-1997" several authors looked for, but didn't find, an increased cancer death rate in radiologists over the last 50 years. Radiologists are doctors who work with x-rays every day and who receive regular low doses of radiation due to the nature of their work. As radiologists ourselves, we're pleased.

In the July BJR issue, University of Wisconsin Professor Emeritus John R. Cameron and N. Daunt of Australia each made some very interesting observations about the data in the study.

In the quarter century after Conrad Roentgen discovered x-rays in 1895, radiologists received an estimated 100 Rads per year, hundreds of times more than usual background radiation doses which typically range from 0.2 to 0.3 Rads. This group of early radiologists had a standardized mortality ratio (SMR) for cancer deaths 75% higher than other doctors in Great Britain; yet these same doctors lived as long, on average, as other doctors, because radiologists' death rate from non-cancer causes was lower.

Once the dangers of high doses of radiation were understood in the decades after the discovery of x-rays, radiologists decreased x-ray exposure, for their patients as well as themselves.

For British radiologists entering the field after 1955, radiologists had a 32 percent lower SMR from all causes compared with other doctors. Radiologists were living longer than doctors in other fields. Statistical analysis shows that the chance that this difference could be a fluke is less than 1 out of a thousand. Cameron writes "This demonstrates a highly significant beneficial effect of radiation at moderate doses of radiation." Also, radiologists' death rates from cancer were 29 percent lower.

Way too much x-ray or other ionizing radiation exposure - several thousand times more than background - does indeed cause cancer and other ills, but the scientific evidence in the current BJR article plus in hundreds of other studies does show that small amounts of additional radiation is not only harmless but actually improves health. In particular, a careful study of U.S. nuclear shipyard workers reported in 1991 showed that nuclear workers had a cancer death rate and a death rate from all causes significantly lower than workers deprived of additional radiation.

Chicken Little alarms about all kinds of radiation, especially radiation emitted by nuclear reactions (power plants, fallout and dirty radioactive bombs), have unnecessarily scared many people.

But Chicken Little only saw - and misinterpreted - the little picture. He projected or extrapolated a tiny pebble or acorn falling on his head to the idea that the entire sky was falling, instead of comparing his observation with previous and subsequent experience. If he hadn't panicked, he would have observed that the rest of the sky wasn't falling at all.

Put differently, it's easier to identify links between individual diseases and threats than to see the big picture. For example, some people die from penicillin. This is not good. But many, many more people benefit from penicillin. A Chicken Little loss of perspective would result if the benefits of penicillin were ignored. The benefits of low doses of radiation have similarly been ignored.

May West may well have said "Too much of a good thing is ... (pregnant Mae West pause) ... wonderful" but in our world this appears to only be valid for true love, which may well be what she meant. Almost every thing else in life, taken to the "too much" level ends up being uncomfortable, or even dangerous to physical or mental health, even if it "feels good" initially, for example, after too many beers. Every other agent improving humans' health, including aspirin, vitamins, calories, etc., is harmful if too much is taken.

So, in the future, we may well see "A Ray A Day" programs to induce people to take a healthy amount of radiation regularly, succeeding the "Apple a Day" program sponsored by apple growers.

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Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple award winning writer who comments on medical- legal issues. Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Both JWR contributors are Harvard trained diagnostic radiologists. Comment by clicking here.


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